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NASA marks 50th birthday, looks to new frontiers

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Sept 25, 2008
Half a century after NASA was created at the height of the Cold War when the United States sought to prove its superiority by winning the race to the Moon, the space agency faces new challenges ahead.

At its conception NASA sought to assert American dominance over the Soviet Union, but in the new 21st century it finds an emerging rival in the space race: China.

The birth of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on October 1, 1958 was directly related to the launch of Soviet space probe Sputnik a year earlier.

That giant leap spurred America into action, and triggered a fierce competition between the superpowers to demonstrate their technological supremacy and, by extension, the superiority of their political systems.

"The Moon race was more than exploration for its own sake, and a lot more than an exercise in national pride," said NASA administrator Michael Griffin.

"It was considered a real-life test of viability of our open society -- a vindication of the very concept of freedom.

"But it was more than just that," Griffin added. "The Soviets had shown that success on the frontier of space could translate into power and influence in the world."

NASA was assured of its pre-eminence when on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong successfully became the first man to land on the Moon, less than a decade after President John Kennedy launched the Apollo program to do just that.

The agency remains a leader in space exploration and is hoping the Constellation program will maintain its dominance by putting Americans back on the Moon by 2020, using it as a base to travel further to Mars and beyond.

This new wave of space exploration, which for the first time envisages having manned colonies on the Moon in which astronauts will live and work, was drawn up in the wake of the shuttle Columbia tragedy which disintegrated on its return to Earth in 2003.

That tragedy and the loss of seven astronauts stunned the nation and was blamed on the aging shuttles by the official investigation. It forced a radical re-think of the space program, coming after the 1986 Challenger catastrophe which also cost seven lives.

Six months after the Columbia accident, President George W. Bush outlined a new vision for space exploration paving the way for the Constellation program which envisages carrying four astronauts to the Moon at a time.

A new spacecraft, the nine-billion dollar Orion, being developed by Lockheed Martin, will be used for these missions and also to fly to the ISS, but will not be operational until 2015.

NASA's dwindling budget has also limited its ambitions. Griffin says the agency receives about 20 percent less in current terms than in the 1990s.

Once the International Space Station is complete, the flights of the three aging space shuttles will be stopped in 2010 leaving a five-year gap until Orion's launch.

During those five years, the United States will depend on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts to the ISS.

But with returning tensions between Washington and Moscow -- in the wake of the recent crisis in Georgia, increased Russian military ties with regimes unfriendly to the US, like Venezuela, and taut relations with former Soviet republics such as Ukraine -- some see reliance on continued US-Russian cooperation as precarious.

"I think it is dangerous to be in this situation," NASA chief Griffin told AFP several days before the beginning of the crisis in Georgia.

"If anything happens to the Soyuz during these five years we will have no access to the ISS," he said.

Alarmed, members of Congress and the Republican candidate for the White House, John McCain, have asked the Bush administration to preserve the option of continuing shuttle flights. That would cost at least 2.5 billion dollars a year, funds currently being used to develop Orion.

This decision will be "probably made" by the next president, according to John Logsdon, former director of the George Washington University's Space Policy Center.

In comments intended for Congress in March, but edited by the White House Office of Management and Budget, Griffin expressed concern at the future.

"A Chinese landing on the Moon prior to our own return will create a stark perception that the US lags behind not only Russia but also China in space," he wrote in an internal email leaked recently to the media.

Sources close to NASA say Griffin is convinced China could technically put men on the Moon by 2017, two years before the Americans plan to return there.

China was Thursday planning its third manned orbital mission and first space walk.

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Facts about NASA, the world's biggest space agency
Washington (AFP) Sept 25, 2008
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has the world's largest budget for space exploration with some 17 billion dollars on hand each year for space missions and robotic research.

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